The poem “And God Said No” was written in 1980 by Claudia Minden Weisz, a woman raised in an alcoholic home, whose sister was murdered, and whose daughter was diagnosed with a severe disorder requiring 24-hour care. The list of her suffering and trauma could go on and on, probably akin to Job in the Old Testament. In the piece Claudia makes supplication to God where, repeatedly and to almost every plea, God says No. So she starts a conversation akin to an ode around the blessing in no, with God ‘justifying’ His every response; until she gets to God’s Yes.
Anyone who has had the privilege of growing up into the grind in any African city knows it is a gradual peeling of the onion at every level, and Nairobi is no different. It is amazing the way the universe opens the way for those who ‘know’ where they are going. In quotes because no one really knows where they are going for sure; most can however accurately predict where they will be in the next minute, hour, day, week, month, year in their career from what they are doing today, based on actions within their control. More like doing today what nobody will do so that you can get tomorrow what nobody can reach.
It is amazing that in my days of ‘tarmacking’ on foot, my path was always littered with people selling thick-soled sturdy shoes, and at every corner there was a shoe-shiner. Avunjas were the default footware; tough-skinned leather shoes that were plain and sturdy, more like factory floor shoes and designed to walk thousands of kilometres. Avunja loosely means breaker, due in part to the damage that this footware could inflict if the wearer deliberately and inadvertently trod on you. Considering the mileage I covered, there was also, by some act of fate and guided steps, always a man roasting corn, selling peanuts, peddling sweets at the end of most roads. It wasn’t too hard to get a few coins to buy these, and even borrowing from the next man on the street was within their strain. Additionally, without too much investment into hygiene and of course without a medical cover of any sort, the immune system was somehow at its peak with extremely versatile white blood cells.
With time I got a gig as a ‘machingas’ which loosely translated means hauling plastic-ware and cheap melamine across Nairobi as I hawked a unique type of FMCGs. The advertisement had said ‘Sales Jobs’ and insisted on official trousers, shirt and tie as a dress code. That read to me like a neat job. It was neat of course, until I realized in shock while in the custody of city council security men that I needed a license to hawk in Nairobi, and because I left my ID at the warehouse every morning as a bond for the merchandise I was given to sell for 10% commission, every time I got stopped by the city council askaris I had neither permit nor ID. Whenever they confiscated my wares, they needed their palms to be greased for release of my cargo, or if the grease was more than the cost of the merchandise then I simply went to repatriate my identification with money equivalent to that day’s wares.
Sometimes you got ambushed and robbed by street urchins. Other times your customers conned you with fake notes. This was the process of street legitimacy. I was already well-versed in the lay of Nairobi, but from my stint as a machinga I became an expert. And I also started taking public service vehicles with some of the 10% commission I made. Meaning now I was encountering lunch spots and kiosk eateries strategically set up at or near bus stops. And classier cobblers, better-quality shoe shiners. Again, raising bus-fare within those circles wasn’t too herculean. The occupation was shifting and shaping the territory, though I do know a couple of my fellow machingas who stuck in that trade for life.
Time and education do deliver. And I soon landed an ‘office’ job which came with round-the-clock food, hot showers, uniform and staff transport to and from home. This was the ultimate bachelor’s dream, and it didn’t matter too much what I was earning at that 5-star hotel. Heck, there were countless high-profile guests checking in and out at any one time, daily tips to blow at the theatre and on harsh spirits, and working with all those sharp, beautiful people raised one’s collective game. Of course by this time the sole on the shoe I now wore was significantly thinner and custom-made for polished floors, carpeted hallways and that sort of class. But the job came with the occasional abusive guest, with little personal growth, long unpredictable hours, the pay was small enough to be dispensed in physical cash, and still had no need of a money purse. Yet many of my former colleagues still successfully hold their ground there.
Then the transition to using taxis happened as selling insurance and personal financial products came along. Lean pockets did necessitate taking PSVs to the shopping centre nearest to the client’s office, then hopping into the most decent available cab for the last mile to the client because image is everything when building trust on that personal level. Otherwise the client would be unable to reconcile your looks and the monthly premium you were trying to convince him to sign up for, fearing that it might not even get to the underwriter’s office. The garb metamorphosis was critical in this aspect. You just needed to know the taxi ranks in Nairobi so you could plan the movement of your image accordingly. And now you had to have a wallet to carry your business cards and those you got from clients in exchange, even those out to embarrass your trade and belittle your persona. And also because ‘fine’ gentlemen carry money in a wallet, not folded between their fingers. To date former peers comfortably still run that gauntlet.
Fast-forward to a job or two later when I bought my first car, and now the battle was no longer about kiosks and shoe shiners and taxi cabs with pungent odours of a damp bedroom full of 4-day-used socks, to the cost of fuel, and the dearth of parking spots, and the high cost of service kits. Now the shoe sole was thinnest, and there was the luxury of a hook in the rear compartment of the automobile, on which to hang one’s coat. And numerous places in which to keep one’s wallet. Additionally it wasn’t odd to ‘borrow’ gas money from friends who drove, or exchanging vehicles for different purposes; it was within their limits. Grown up? Not really. In fact my venture into ‘employed’ was not any more special than yours, and we can all write volume upon volume on these. Those reflections simply help us assess the progress of the process. And to respect the process.
If you look at the roughly 14-day journey that the unsightly caterpillar takes from egg through larvae and pupa to emerge as a beautiful butterfly, you would be tempted to have it harried out of its chrysalis into rapid beauty. Alas, anything unnaturally cutting short this final process also cuts short the butterfly’s life, seeing as it is during the butterfly’s struggle to get out of pupal stage that the necessary juices are pumped into what will become its wings, to strengthen them for the life ahead. Really not too dissimilar with how a new-born baby’s first cry helps fill its lungs with vital oxygen to get its organs going. Because everything has its place and time, and nature is perfect in her execution of seasons and processes.
If you want to know how important the process is, just look at the silver-spooners in any workplace who didn’t have to struggle through the ranks but suddenly sit on the ranks; generals who have never been on the battlefield nor fired a single round except in the controlled environment of a shooting range. Edifice-owners whose castles came up so fast they are literally built on wooden stilts, more often than not prefabricated by someone else. Lost because they couldn’t understand what the other fellow was doing with steel anchor bolts and frames and trusses, spending the whole year on joints and slabs and beams. Lost because pride and wisdom don’t sit too well together.
The steel structure takes forever to come up, but it is unshaken by politics and market upheavals and staff exits, price wars, shareholder withdrawals and corporate espionage; the structure can handle disruption. On the wooden tower of the entitled, never having come through the ranks to understand the lay of the land and what the job on the ground entails, the meteor gives little regard to rank and file and prefers to hobnob with the lofty classes. When competition blows a foul wind his way the tumble is more rapid than was the rise because he has no idea what built the edifice in the first place so cannot latch onto a single safety truss. In chasing attention and adulation he lost sight of the building blocks of respect. Process could have helped set the cement but no.
The problem with such bequeathed altitude is you can climb too high for your own good. It is possible to ascend too far, to stand too tall, and to elevate too much. Like Moses, one must come down the mountain from time to time, lest you find the minions have overthrown you. Linger too long at high altitudes, and two of your most important survival senses suffer. First your hearing dulls; it is hard to hear people when you are higher than they are. Their voices grow distant, and sentences seem muffled. Secondly when you are up there, your eyesight dims, because it’s hard to focus on people when you are so far above them; they appear so small. Little figures with no faces. You can hardly distinguish one from the other; they all look alike, these minions. You don’t hear them. You don’t see them. You are above them. Coming through the ranks or understanding the ranks is a safeguard against losing these two critical senses.
Which is the reason why one of my more illustrious former employers always insisted on a program called ‘In Your Shoes’ which helped expose different facets of the business to people who would otherwise never bother to know what happened in other divisions. Anyone who went through the program understood different roles and departments from top to bottom, and was better equipped to do the right thing for the customer, the company and their colleague, which meant less customer complaints, a happier workplace and prosperity for all.
Another former employer, the 5-star hotel, was even more thorough in running a 1-month induction for new staff who had to serve in all the hotel’s departments before finally settling into their role. This produced a refined hotelier who could help fill in for Reservations, or serve in the Ballroom in times of shortage, or man the Switchboard, or make beds in the guest chambers. At the worst they could offer first-contact assistance to any guest regardless of the issue raised, instead of just dumping the problem to the next available colleague. Another example of well-dyed wool was in one of the largest local retail supermarkets in Kenya that has recently plummeted almost to obscurity, which had arguably the best attendants and staffers in its ranks; people who had such a great understanding of all their stalls and shelves, and also had no problem stepping aside for you the shopper to pass on a narrow aisle. Which is more than can be said of the new kings in that space, whose staff are always competing and jostling for space with shoppers.
Processes bake us and equip us for work. Work, even the most basic chore, involves solving a problem. Meaning without problems there is no work; we may as well run around the Garden of Eden in our birthday suits and sleep on trees. Hardships are attendants of processes, to shape and mould, to grow and strengthen. Muscles which are flexed frequently are strongest. Genuinely connecting with as many people as possible is an antidote to altitude sickness and sender-addiction, also known as order-issuing. Just look at David the great King, and how many times he ‘sends’ in the Bathsheba story. He sends Joab to battle as he should. But he also sends the servant to inquire about Bathsheba. And he sends for Bathsheba to have her come to him. When David learns of her pregnancy, he sends word to Joab to send Uriah back to Jerusalem. David sends him to Bathsheba to rest, but Uriah is too noble. David opts to send Uriah back to a place in the battle where he is sure to be killed. Thinking his cover-up is complete, David sends for Bathsheba and marries her. You can’t like this sending, demanding David too much. What has happened to him? Simple; altitude sickness. He has been too high too long. The thin air has messed with his senses. He can’t hear as he used to, can’t grasp a sling nor play a harp like he used to. He can’t hear the warnings of the servant or the voice of his conscience. Nor can he hear his Lord.
But are we up to the challenge of the process? Can we sit still while the cement sets? While the paint dries? While the seed sprouts? While the hair grows again? While we master our current role so that the promotion is deserved, earned and justified? Yet just as we deceive ourselves into believing something will make us happier than it will, we oftentimes also deceive ourselves into believing something will be more difficult than it will, and thus spend a lot of time and energy bracing ourselves. The longer we brace or procrastinate the more our psyche exaggerates the issue. However, once we take action, the discomfort is far less severe than imagined. Even to extremely difficult things, humans adapt. Just because you took longer than others doesn’t mean you failed.
On this bicycle called life, to keep balance we have to keep pedaling, we have to keep moving. The problem with dread and fear is that it holds people back from taking on big challenges, from making the steps needed to get out of the pupa, to grow from walking to riding the bus, to driving, to flying. What you will find, no matter how big or small the challenge, is that you will adapt to it. When you consciously adapt to enormous stress, you evolve. And no is part of the process; it really is. How do you trust the process in the face of no? The journey up the mountain is fraught with loneliness, brokenness, broke-ness, doubt and distress. But the walk, the tying of trusses, fixing bolts, buttressing pillars, mixing sand-ballast-cement… these are most fulfilling works.
The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward. Convention is where we are. Breaking convention is how human beings evolve, which requires a gargantuan quantity of failure. Fidel Castro’s quip was that it is the adventurers, romantics and the dreamers who move humanity forward. Seth Godin’s take is if I fail more than you do, I win.
We will inevitably encounter many ‘no’ responses while the process ensues. We will be hurt, deceived, stabbed both in the back and in the face, disillusioned while people less-endowed than us are given the long end of the stick and rise to lord it over us due to other inexplicable ‘processes’. We will fail many times, and each failure will give us invaluable feedback. We will move from failure to failure as part of the process, as we move forward. Setting the swamp on fire will not be easy, but when you get it right it makes the process worthwhile, and sets you up to conquer greater heights, one step at a time. This conscious, exerted effort toward something you’ve never done before is incredibly liberating.
Many times the tough experiences that we go through, the impossible hand that we draw in the game of life, put us directly on the path to the best opportunities that will ever happen to us. Life itself is a naturally efficient fractionating column; its distillation mechanism separates each of us from a mixture into component parts by applying heat on our individual journeys, and we each pop out as individual pure compounds, at different times. We will each discard our avunjas at different points. The process will have different outcomes on each. Respect the process.